Note to Hobbyists

On February 14, 2012, the Congress passed a law that largely made UAS hobbyists off limits to the FAA.  Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 created “The Special Rule for Model Aircraft” that provides:

[t]he Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft, or an aircraft being developed as a model aircraft . . .

Over the past three years, there has been an explosion in the number of hobby drones in the United States.  Estimates put the total at over 500,000 aircraft in service.  There has, unfortunately, also been a similar increase in the reports of near misses and close calls at the nation’s airports.  As a result, some in Congress are rethinking the wisdom of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft.

Long time drone critic Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has joined with Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) to introduce the Consumer Drone Safety Act.  The bill directs the FAA to regulate consumer drones, and enact comprehensive regulations covering where they may be flown, how high they may be flown, when they may be flown, and any other topic the FAA Administrator feels is necessary to protect the National Airspace System.

In addition, the FAA is instructed to mandate the inclusion of technology in all consumer drones that would prevent any hobbyist from violating altitude or airport airspace restrictions and require return-to-home technology to deal with lost links.  Even more significantly, the legislation would require hobbyist drones to have a registration number and a transponder “or similar technology to convey the drone’s location and altitude,” as well as anti-tamper features to prevent hobbyists from disabling the built in limiters.

This proposed bill also creates an enormous burden on existing UAS manufacturers, as it requires all existing UAS to be modified “at the manufacturer’s expense” so they can retro-actively meet the new requirements.  While the bill has an escape clause that manufacturers can use to avoid the retrofit, it is available only in cases where the FAA Administrator finds that doing so “does not create a hazard to users of the national airspace system.”

Since the vast majority of UAS sales in the United States are made to hobbyists, the abandonment of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft would have a substantial impact on the industry.  As of now, the major players have not mobilized to either support or fight the bill, and its fate remains uncertain.  However, if one of the many near-misses turns into an actual collision, then we can expect a stampede of senators looking to become co-sponsors.

(Originally posted June 24, 2015)

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